Election Day may be a month away, but Sonoma County residents began casting ballots Monday in the Nov. 6 general election using an increasingly popular way to vote.

Monday was the first day any eligible voter, registered or not, could pick up a vote-by-mail ballot at the Registrar of Voters Office in Santa Rosa and either fill it out on the spot or take it home to ponder the choices that range from president to city council member to local school bond measures.

"Election 2012 is under way," said Gloria Colter, assistant registrar of voters.

About 40 voters obtained ballots at the registrar's office on Monday.

Today, about 173,000 ballots will go out in the mail, primarily to Sonoma County voters who have signed up to permanently vote by mail, using what formerly was known as an absentee ballot.

With elections officials like Colter applauding the trend, Californians are turning in record numbers to the use of mail-in ballots, which can be requested and submitted by mail, eliminating the hassle -- and carbon footprint -- of trekking to the polls.

"Go green -- vote by mail," Colter said.

Vote-by-mail ballots were 65 percent of ballots cast in the June primary, the most ever in a statewide election, the California Secretary of State's Office said Monday.

"Election Day has really become election month," Secretary of State Debra Bowen said in a statement.

Sonoma County has issued a total of 174,394 mail-in ballots for the November election, including 153,199 to permanent vote-by-mail voters, 15,411 to voters who have no polling place and the rest to one-time only vote-by-mail voters and to civilians and military service members living or traveling overseas.

The total accounts for 69.6 percent of the county's registered voters, the third-highest percentage in the state -- behind Mendocino (75.4 percent) and Santa Clara (70.3 percent) -- among the 37 counties that have reported mail-in ballot distribution.

But there are wrinkles in the shift to mail-in ballots, due largely to procrastinators who bring theirs to a polling place on Election Day rather than mailing it in ahead of time.

In June, 23,250 Sonoma County voters brought mail-in ballots to the polls, delaying the final vote tally for weeks after Election Day.

The last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot sent out by mail is Oct. 30.

Registered voters may request a ballot using the application form available online at the county registrar's website (http://vote.sonoma-county.org) or from the secretary of state (www.sos.ca.gov).

Voters can cast these ballots by mail, drop them off at any polling place within the voter's county or vote in person at county elections offices.

Oct. 22 is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 6 election.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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